Cannes 2022: Fighting Cynicism in 'Three Thousand Years of Longing'
by Alex Billington
May 23, 2022
What does your heart truly desire? If you were asked this question on the spot, right now, would you be able to answer it? Would it be the actual, deep down truth? Or is the answer so complex and frightening that it's not easy to say without prying into the many dark twists & turns throughout our lives? George Miller's latest movie is a glorious, ambitious, one-of-a-kind creation called Three Thousand Years of Longing that explores this question (and others) by taking us on a journey with one lonely woman who is presented with this very provocation. She doesn't want to admit she is lonely, she claims to be content and satisfied being all by herself, but with time and understanding, she admits it. Deep down I wonder if it's true that we all wish for someone to be with, or something to take away that loneliness that I know we all feel. But some of us are more open to admitting this than others… And some are so afraid of always being lonely that they pretend they're totally fine with it and never confront these feelings. Perhaps meeting a Djinn could help…?
Three Thousand Years of Longing is both written and directed by acclaimed Australian filmmaker George Miller, his latest work since Mad Max: Fury Road, and one of his most complex and humanistic movies so far. Tilda Swinton stars as Alithea, a smarmy bookish woman who prefers to be single and entirely on her own. She arrives in Istanbul to participate in a presentation on storytelling as a "narratologist" - someone who analyzes stories and their connections throughout human history. In her hotel in Istanbul, she opens a tiny bottle and meets a Djinn, essentially evoking the classic genie-in-a-bottle myth also found in Aladdin and The Thief of Bagdad. Idris Elba plays her Djinn, a big, burly man who speaks clearly and convincingly, and they quickly descend into a mind-expanding conversation that delves into various tales of people from the past. The Djinn asks her her to make her three wishes, but she can't; not only does she have nothing to wish for, she doesn't believe any of it is real anyway. But he assures her it is real by regaling her with stories of his past and his experiences with humanity and love and death and everything else that comes between.
The best part about it is that Elba and Swinton are so perfect for their roles, there is never any chance to doubt their characters. I am more impressed with Elba's straight-forward "genie" in this than I have been with his recent roles, he is a towering individual balancing gravitas & charisma with physical perfection and a softness in his eyes. He's the ultimate man and that matters because, despite the zig-zags of this movie, his charm is important to every aspect of the stories he tells. Alithea is the perfectly nerdy, questions-everything intelligent woman to confront his stories but ends up being touched & intrigued by them. Miller doesn't hold back on the visuals either, offering up vividly imagined sequences going back into human history. Perhaps it will be jarring for some to go through all of this, but this is George Miller we're talking about, and he's not trying to make them real - he's trying to make them epic. For a reason. Because it's all about the storytelling and profundity of these stories. Not only so they can live up to the way Elba's Djinn is telling them (as he lived them) but also so they can be seared into our memories using the power of cinema to open our minds.
I do wonder if some of the people who will watch this movie and hate it are the very kind of lifeless people that the movie is confronting. It's a rousing, vibrant rejection of cynicism using a strange narrative structure and storytelling as a conceit. It doesn't all fit together perfectly, and the tone is all over the place, but that didn't bother me much. It is, however, definitely and assuredly not a "lifeless" movie as I heard one critic say upon leaving the screening in Cannes. It is a movie full of life, found in all the various marvelous stories, and in the eyes of Tilda Swinton. There is a moment where she finally lights up, and finally lets her emotions out, without shedding a tear, merely on the verge of one making its appearance. But that moment was one of the grand moments in this movie where, as a viewer, you'll finally realize she has been denying and covering up her own truths about longing and desire. She has wrapped herself in a comfortable cocoon of cynicism to keep these emotions from overwhelming her. Once he gets this out of her and she learns to let go, she then discovers that companionship is the most beautiful thing about life, despite all her experiences rejecting it.
To top off all the visual grandeur and spectacular stories, Three Thousand Years of Longing also features composer Tom Holkenborg's (aka Junkie XL) best score since Mad Max: Fury Road - which is an album I listen to all the time when my mind needs to be revved up. It's another exceptionally moving and kinetic score that helps elevate the movie even further and make it a mystical, magical, sweeping experience that spans thousands of years. In all honesty, I think the movie will will be too honest and vibrant for some, it's beautifully endearing and confronts some people so directly they won't be able to stand it. It connected with me, but I know it won't connect with everyone. Miller's Three Thousand Years of Longing is a challenge to those who feel content with loneliness, wrapped in their blankets of cynicism. It's as much about the power of storytelling as it is about the power of love and desire. It's about how meaningful companionship and connection are, to every last one of us, even if we insist otherwise. I'm looking forward to revisiting it again.